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Chapter 38

The foregoing reflections occur, in a cruder form,
as it were, in my note-book, where I find this remark
appended to them: "Don't take leave of Lamartine on
that contemptuous note; it will be easy to think of
something more sympathetic!" Those friends of mine,
mentioned a little while since, who accuse me of always
tipping back the balance, could not desire a paragraph
more characteristic; but I wish to give no further evi-
dence of such infirmities, and will therefore hurry away
from the subject, - hurry away in the train which, very
early on a crisp, bright morning, conveyed. me, by way
of an excursion, to the ancient city of Bourg-en-Bresse.
Shining in early light, the Saone was spread, like a
smooth, white tablecloth, over a considerable part of
the flat country that I traversed. There is no provision
made in this image for the long, transparent screens
of thin-twigged trees which rose at intervals out of
the watery plain; but as, under the circumstances,
there seemed to be no provision for them in fact, I
will let my metaphor go for what it is worth. My
journey was (as I remember it) of about an hour and
a half; but I passed no object of interest, as the phrase
is, whatever. The phrase hardly applies even to Bourg
itself, which is simply a town _quelconque_, as M. Zola
would say. Small, peaceful, rustic, it stands in the
midst of the great dairy-feeding plains of Bresse, of
which fat county, sometime property of the house of
Savoy, it was the modest capital. The blue masses
of the Jura give it a creditable horizon, but the only
nearer feature it can point to is its famous sepulchral
church. This edifice lies at a fortunate distance from
the town, which, though inoffensive, is of too common
a stamp to consort with such a treasure. All I ever
knew of the church of Brou I had gathered, years
ago, from Matthew Arnold's beautiful poem, which
bears its name. I remember thinking, in those years,
that it was impossible verses could be more touching
than these; and as I stood before the object of my
pilgrimage, in the gay French light (though the place
was so dull), I recalled the spot where I had first read
them, and where I read them again and yet again,
wondering whether it would ever be my fortune to
visit the church of Brou. The spot in question was
an armchair in a window which looked out on some
cows in a field; and whenever I glanced at the cows
it came over me - I scarcely know why - that I should
probably never behold the structure reared by the
Duchess Margaret. Some of our visions never come
to pass; but we must be just, - others do. "So sleep,
forever sleep, O princely pair!" I remembered that
line of Matthew Arnold's, and the stanza about the
Duchess Margaret coming to watch the builders on
her palfry white. Then there came to me something
in regard to the moon shining on winter nights through
the cold clere-story. The tone of the place at that
hour was not at all lunar; it was cold and bright, but
with the chill of an autumn morning; yet this, even
with the fact of the unexpected remoteness of the
church from the Jura added to it, did not prevent me
from feeling that I looked at a monument in the pro-
duction of which - or at least in the effect of which
on the tourist mind of to-day - Matthew Arnold had
been much concerned. By a pardonable license he
has placed it a few miles nearer to the forests of the
Jura than it stands at present. It is very true that,
though the mountains in the sixteenth century can
hardly have been in a different position, the plain
which separates the church from them may have been
bedecked with woods. The visitor to-day cannot help
wondering why the beautiful building, with its splendid
works of art, is dropped down in that particular spot,
which looks so accidental and arbitrary. But there
are reasons for most things, and there were reasons
why the church of Brou should be at Brou, which is
a vague little suburb of a vague little town.

The responsibility rests, at any rate, upon the
Duchess Margaret, - Margaret of Austria, daughter of
the Emperor Maximilian and his wife Mary of Bur-
gundy, daughter of Charles the Bold. This lady has
a high name in history, having been regent of the
Netherlands in behalf of her nephew, the Emperor
Charles V., of whose early education she had had the
care. She married in 1501 Philibert the Handsome,
Duke of Savoy, to whom the province of Bresse be-
longed, and who died two years later. She had been
betrothed, is a child, to Charles VIII. of France, and
was kept for some time at the French court, - that of
her prospective father-in-law, Louis XI.; but she was
eventually repudiated, in order that her _fiance_ might
marry Anne of Brittany, - an alliance so magnificently
political that we almost condone the offence to a
sensitive princess. Margaret did not want for hus-
bands, however, inasmuch as before her marriage to
Philibert she had been united to John of Castile, son
of Ferdinand V., King of Aragon, - an episode ter-
minated, by the death of the Spanish prince, within a
year. She was twenty-two years regent of the Nether-
lands, and died at fifty-one, in 1530. She might have
been, had she chosen, the wife, of Henry VII. of Eng-
land. She was one of the signers of the League of
Cambray, against the Venetian republic, and was a
most politic, accomplished, and judicious princess.
She undertook to build the church of Brou as a mau-
soleum, for her second husband and herself, in fulfil-
ment of a vow made by Margaret of Bourbon, mother
of Philibert, who died before she could redeem her
pledge, and who bequeathed the duty to her son. He
died shortly afterwards, and his widow assumed the
pious task. According to Murray, she intrusted the
erection of the church to "Maistre Loys von Berghem,"
and the sculpture to "Maistre Conrad." The author
of a superstitious but carefully prepared little Notice,
which I bought at Bourg, calls the architect and
sculptor (at once) Jehan de Paris, author (sic) of the
tomb of Francis II. of Brittany, to which we gave some
attention at Nantes, and which the writer of my
pamphlet ascribes only subordinately to Michel Colomb.
The church, which is not of great size, is in the last
and most flamboyant phase of Gothic, and in admirable
preservation; the west front, before which a quaint old
sun-dial is laid out on the ground, - a circle of num-
bers marked in stone, like those on a clock face, let
into the earth, - is covered with delicate ornament.
The great feature, however (the nave is perfectly bare
and wonderfully new-looking, though the warden, a
stolid yet sharp old peasant, in a blouse, who looked
more as if his line were chaffering over turnips than
showing off works of art, told me that it has never
been touched, and that its freshness is simply the
quality of the stone), - the great feature is the ad-
mirable choir, in the midst of which the three monu-
ments have bloomed under the chisel, like exotic
plants in a conservatory. I saw the place to small
advantage, for the stained glass of the windows, which
are fine, was under repair, and much of it was masked
with planks.

In the centre lies Philibert-le-Bel, a figure of white
marble on a great slab of black, in his robes and his
armor, with two boy-angels holding a tablet at his
head, and two more at his feet. On either side of
him is another cherub: one guarding his helmet, the
other his stiff gauntlets. The attitudes of these charm-
ing children, whose faces are all bent upon him in
pity, have the prettiest tenderness and respect. The
table on which he lies is supported by elaborate
columns, adorned with niches containing little images,
and with every other imaginable elegance; and be-
neath it he is represented in that other form, so com-
mon in the tombs of the Renaissance, - a man naked
and dying, with none of the state and splendor of the
image above. One of these figures embodies the duke
the other simply the mortal; and there is something
very strange and striking in the effect of the latter,
seen dimly and with difficulty through the intervals
of the rich supports of the upper slab. The monu-
ment of Margaret herself is on the left, all in white
merble, tormented into a multitude of exquisite pat-
terns, the last extravagance of a Gothic which had
gone so far that nothing was left it but to return upon
itself. Unlike her husband, who has only the high
roof of the church above him, she lies under a canopy
supported and covered by a wilderness of embroidery,
- flowers, devices, initials, arabesques, statuettes.
Watched over by cherubs, she is also in her robes
and ermine, with a greyhound sleeping at her feet
(her husband, at his, has a waking lion); and the
artist has not, it is to be presumed, represented her
as more beautiful than she was. She looks, indeed,
like the regent of a turbulent realm. Beneath her
couch is stretched another figure, - a less brilliant
Margaret, wrapped in her shroud, with her long hair
over her shoulders. Round the tomb is the battered
iron railing placed there originally, with the myste-
rious motto of the duchess worked into the top, -
_fortune infortune fort une_. The other two monuments
are protected by barriers of the same pattern. That
of Margaret of Bourbon, Philibert's mother, stands on
the right of the choir; and I suppose its greatest dis-
tinction is that it should have been erected to a
mother-in-law. It is but little less florid and sump-
tuous than the others; it has, however, no second re-
cumbent figure. On the other hand, the statuettes
that surround the base of the tomb are of even more
exquisite workmanship: they represent weeping wo-
men, in long mantles and hoods, which latter hang
forward over the small face of the figure, giving the
artist a chance to carve the features within this hollow
of drapery, - an extraordinary play of skill. There is
a high, white marble shrine of the Virgin, as extra-
ordinary as all the rest (a series of compartments, re-
presenting the various scenes of her life, with the
Assumption in the middle); and there is a magnifi-
cent series of stalls, which are simply the intricate
embroidery of the tombs translated into polished oak.
All these things are splendid, ingenious, elaborate,
precious; it is goldsmith's work on a monumental
scale, and the general effect is none the less beautiful
and solemn because it is so rich. But the monuments
of the church of Brou are not the noblest that one
may see; the great tombs of Verona are finer, and
various other early Italian work. These things are
not insincere, as Ruskin would say; but they are pre-
tentious, and they are not positively _naifs_. I should
mention that the walls of the choir are embroidered
in places with Margaret's tantalizing device, which -
partly, perhaps, because it is tantalizing - is so very
decorative, as they say in London. I know not whether
she was acquainted with this epithet; but she had
anticipated one of the fashions most characteristic of
our age.

One asks one's self how all this decoration, this
luxury of fair and chiselled marble, survived the
French Revolution. An hour of liberty in the choir
of Brou would have been a carnival for the image-
breakers. The well-fed Bressois are surely a good-
natured people. I call them well-fed both on general
and on particular grounds. Their province has the
most savory aroma, and I found an opportunity to
test its reputation. I walked back into the town from
the church (there was really nothing to be seen by
the way), and as the hour of the midday breakfast
had struck, directed my steps to the inn. The table
d'hote was going on, and a gracious, bustling, talkative
landlady welcomed me. I had an excellent repast -
the best repast possible - which consisted simply of
boiled eggs and bread and butter. It was the quality
of these simple ingredients that made the occasion
memorable. The eggs were so good that I am ashamed
to say how many of them I consumed. "La plus
belle fille du monde," as the French proverb says,
"ne peut donner que ce qu'elle a;" and it might
seem that an egg which has succeeded in being fresh
has done all that can reasonably be expected of it.
But there was a bloom of punctuality, so to speak,
about these eggs of Bourg, as if it had been the in-
tention of the very hens themselves that they should
be promptly served. "Nous sommes en Bresse, et le
beurre n'est pas mauvais," the landlady said, with a
sort of dry coquetry, as she placed this article before
me. It was the poetry of butter, and I ate a pound
or two of it; after which I came away with a strange
mixture of impressions of late Gothic sculpture and
thick _tartines_. I came away through the town, where,
on a little green promenade, facing the hotel, is a
bronze statue of Bichat, the physiologist, who was a
Bressois. I mention it, not on account of its merit
(though, as statues go, I don't remember that it is
bad), but because I learned from it - my ignorance,
doubtless, did me little honor - that Bichat had died
at thirty years of age, and this revelation was almost
agitating. To have done so much in so short a life
was to be truly great. This reflection, which looks
deplorably trite as I write it here, had the effect of
eloquence as I uttered it, for my own benefit, on the
bare little mall at Bourg.

Henry James